Editorial: As good as we'll get

4th December 1998 at 00:00
For Britain's teachers, yesterday's Green Paper is the most significant event since the 1988 Education Reform Act - and maybe more so. For ERA, following hard on the heels of a prolonged and bitter strike, was loathed and resented by many, who saw it as a government attack on teachers' autonomy, integrity and professionalism. It had a profoundly negative effect on the profession.

The Labour Government devoutly hopes that its proposals will be received positively, as a workable plan for giving the profession the money, status and recognition it deserves. In exchange, they hope that teachers will accept a new pay structure which will reward high performance and attract the fresh recruits who are so badly needed.

Virtually everyone involved in education admits that change is needed. Inadequate pay for teachers has been a running sore for years; working conditions are poor; morale is low; and, above all, the recruitment crisis is gathering pace until it threatens to derail the Government's education plans. The rhetoric of high standards and modernisation sounds pretty thin if almost no one wants to teach in this new world-class education system.

As a package, the combination of higher pay, a more varied career path and more support in the classroom looks attractive. But, as David Blunkett said in The TES last summer, no one gets something for nothing. He, no doubt, has had to get his plans past the hard men in the Treasury, and the unspoken sub-text is: this is the best we're going to get. So, the teachers are being offered something for something; and the something that they are being asked to give way on is appraisal.

The question hanging in the air is: how will the teachers, who have always resisted performance-related pay, react? Will they accept regular assessments as the price of a better-paid, better-structured and more rewarding career? And if they don't, what options are left? David Blunkett wants something which will work. He's already challenged teachers to let him know if they've a better idea. If they have, he'll use it.

Up and down the country, staffrooms are divided. On the one hand are the old hands, often embittered by years of exhausting toil and lack of recognition, who feel that any enthusiasm on the part of colleagues is naive or self-serving. They won't like the Green Paper.

Then there is the sizeable body of teachers of all ages who are enthusiastic, adventurous and demanding of both themselves and their pupils. For them the Green Paper is the future: their chance to get not only more pay and status, but to keep on learning and improving their practice.

But perhaps the most significant group falls between these two extremes. They haven't given up: they are conscientious and hard-working. But they are exhausted, ground down by big classes and unremitting bureaucracy. The holidays barely give them enough time to recharge their batteries and remember what it was like to be young and energetic. How they react to the Green Paper will be crucial - and is hard to predict.

Education ministers are keen to point out that pay is only one aspect of their proposals, which include better in-service training, more help in the classroom, improved working conditions - and even revamped staffrooms with designer furniture and light, cheerful paintwork.

In many of today's dilapidated staffrooms, a weary cynicism is de rigeur.But the kind of chance offered by this Green Paper only comes once in a lifetime. The Government wants teachers to debate the issues, and join them in thrashing out a workable solution.

The teachers' reaction could mark the start of a new and different world,where they work together to transform their own profession - for only they can do it. Or their response could demonstrate beyond doubt that teaching in Britain is a dying profession, unable to see its way forward. The staffroom cynics would have won.

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